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The Primary Textile Industry in Canada: History and Heritage.

Alan McCullough, a historian with the Parks Service, Environment Canada, has written a much-needed overview of the important role that the textile industry played in Canadian industrial development. The primary textile industry was one of the country's largest employers between 1880 and 1950, and the history of cotton textiles is intricately linked to the rise of Canadian financial institutions and other industries through interlocking directorships. The book, a blend of historiography and heritage, emphasizing the history of the surviving mills, is a reminder of the legacy of the industry. It is a resource for historians and heritage activists, especially those interested in preserving and adapting to new uses the old textile mills. It should help create public awareness of this heritage.

Primary textiles includes four separate industries--woolens, cottons, knit goods, and silks and synthetics. The woolen and cotton industries developed independently and differently. Silks and synthetics are grouped together because acetate rayon, the first synthetic fabric, was initially seen as a substitute for silk when it was introduced in the 1920s. Clothing manufacturing, the secondary textile industry, is not discussed. McCullough summarizes the history of these industries around the themes of technology, tariffs, finance and ownership, labor and industrial architecture, emphasizing the period 1880 to 1939.

In tracing technological developments in the industries, McCullough describes the traditional pre-industrial methods used in processing wool, cotton, and linen, and then illustrates the technological inventions that mechanized the processes. Flow charts of the different procedures, along with contemporary photographs of the machines in place in the mills, help make the complicated steps in manufacturing different types of textiles more readily understandable. A valuable section on mill architecture, based on original plans of mills, often drawn for insurance companies, gives information not otherwise available. Numerous photographs of mill interiors illustrate how the space was used. The succinct historical account is crammed with the names of owners, financiers, and mill sites. Passing from a cottage industry to small mills serving regional markets, the woolen industry in Canada reached maturity in the late nineteenth century. Cotton textiles were produced initially in small, regional, locally owned operations scattered from the Maritimes through Ontario. In the 1880s large mills were built in Quebec by combinations of Montreal merchants and financiers, creating dramatic growth in the cotton sector in the 1880s. In the 1890s, the Montreal business elite, led by Andrew Gault and David Morrice, gained control of many mills in the Maritimes and Ontario, consolidating some operations and closing others. The cotton industry reached maturity by 1910. The history includes some of the problems faced by the textile companies in the 1950s but does not cover the 1960s, when the cotton industry was substantially changed by the introduction of polyester and polyester blends.

The tariff structures for the woolen and cotton sectors were similar, but the cotton industry was more successful financially. McCullough speculates that the difference in growth rates was caused by more than tariffs. The larger market for cotton goods allowed textile magnates to implement more efficient scale plants and to structure the industry through cartels and mergers to gain more market control than was possible in the smaller and always fragmented woolen industry.

The second part of the book lists a selection of sites where early buildings survive, with a short history of each mill and its company. A few important buildings that have been demolished such as the Hudon mill in Montreal, the first large-scale mill in Canada, also are included. In keeping with the book's purpose of helping groups that wish to preserve the old mills in some form, this section is illustrated with historic and recent photographs. Built to withstand the pounding of thousands of looms, these huge structures are being refurbished for new purposes. The renovated Rosamond woolen mill in Almonte, Ontario, is now residential condominiums; the Simpson knitting mill in Toronto has been converted to office and retail space; and the Gibson cotton mill in Marysville, New Brunswick, has been converted to offices. Useful comparative tables on employment and wage rates, production figures, and tariff rates by the various industry sectors and by region are included.

This book should prove to be a valuable heritage reference source. Shortly after receiving the review copy, I toured the reopened McCord Museum in Montreal. A Notman photograph of an old Eastern Townships mill was incorrectly labeled the Paton's cotton mill. A hundred years ago Canadian men were married and buried in a suit of Paton's dark wool worsted cloth. But this memory is lost, and Paton's is no longer synonymous with wool. McCullough's book should help keep these connections straight.

Barbara Austin is an associate professor of business policy at Brock University. She has published articles on the Canadian textile, pulp and paper, and steel industries.
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Author:Austin, Barbara
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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